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Drash Hevruta One Approach to Jewish Learning

Drash, By Beverly Lehrer and Barbara White, Given February 2011

Since the two of us spoke from notes, the following is an approximation of our drash: 

Barbara White: 

I want to thank Rabbi Seidel for making a connection between our drash and the Torah reading since we weren’t planning to do that. As Rabbi Seidel said earlier, Hevruta refers to studying with a study partner. 

First I want to ask how many of you have experienced Hevruta study? I see some of you have and some of you haven’t. We’re planning to talk both about Hevruta study in general and our own experience, so I hope there will be something of interest for everyone. 

Hevruta comes from the Hebrew word haver, meaning friend or comrade. It is a traditional, ages-old form of Jewish study. It has two main characteristics: (1) It is text based. You’re studying a text. (2) You do it with a study partner. 

Traditionally, in Hevruta study, one person reads the first part of the text, and the other comments on it, perhaps summarizes it, and asks questions. Next, the two study partners end up discussing it. Then, you change places, and the other person reads the next part of the text. 

In the 1960’s, and 1970’s, there was a resurgence of Hevruta study in many places, including Jewish institutions which had not been using Hevruta study. Today, the idea is that people of different backgrounds can learn from one another. We all have something to contribute. 

Hevruta is not about competing or proving a point. It’s about two people sparking one another to learn. The term Hevruta refers both to the process I’ve been describing and to your study partner. 

Both Beverly and I experienced Hevruta study at the Jewish Study Center, which uses that approach a lot. We probably first encountered it in an on-going class in Talmud we were both taking. Later, we both started going to National Havurah Committee’s summer Institute, where most teachers regularly use the Hevruta approach.

 

Beverly Lehrer: 

We both had experience with Hevruta study.  But while we were once in the same Talmud class, we had never studied together as Hevruta.

That changed when we were at a Shabbat service at the Havurah Institute, which we both attend.   Part of the service was Hevruta study of the Shema.  We were assigned as study partners, and something clicked. After the service, we talked about it and decided to try this as a regular practice at home.

The first challenge was figuring out what we wanted to do, and we decided to focus on prayer and the prayer book.

Barbara suggested that we use a volume from the series “My People’s Prayer Book:  Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” as a resource. It includes basic prayers, plus commentary from many different points of view.  We realized that we needed both text and other points of view to help us focus our study, since we weren’t working with a teacher or guide.  Among commentators in the volume on the Shema

are Marc Brettler on our biblical heritage,  Joel Hoffman on what the prayers really say,  Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen on Chasidic and mystical perspectives, Judith Plaskow on feminist theology, and Elliot Dorff on theological reflections.

We have been studying together for 7 years now.  We spent about 5 of them studying prayer, and completed 4 volumes in the series.

 

Barbara: 

I’d only add that working with more than one commentary at a time has been really important for us, as it’s kept us from being blindly pulled in one direction or another. 

Now I’d like to say something about our approach. Since we could meet only once a month, we decided to modify the traditional approach to Hevruta study. We study the text and commentaries in advance, perhaps make notes or place little stickies in our books. By the time we sit down together, we’ve already read the text and thought about it. We each bring up items of interest, questions, or concerns, and might read short passages of text or commentary to one another before discussing them. 

 

Beverly:

A few years ago, we decided to change our focus, and after some discussion, settled on prophecy and the prophets.  Our interests in this subject are different.  But we have both found lots to explore in Nevi’im. 

We aren’t reading each prophetic book as a whole.  Instead, we are using the haftarot as a vehicle for exploring the prophets.  We are getting ‘snapshots’ of the prophetic books. This was a deliberate choice.

Here, too, we decided to use commentary to enhance our study. Our sources are  “The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot” and the “Jewish Study Bible.”   Together, they provide a comprehensive overview of the pieces we are studying.  

 

Barbara: 

I want to add something about our separate interests. I know Biblical Hebrew reasonably well, but find the Hebrew of the prophets is much harder to understand and, more importantly, I find it harder to get an idea of what the prophet is saying and why. Beverly started with different interests, but because the two of us are studying together, I’ve gotten interested in her question of what is a prophet and what is the prophetic voice. I think getting interested in each other’s questions is part of the whole process of Hevruta. 

Now I want to now talk a little about what I see as the advantages of Hevruta study as well as what Beverly and I have gotten out of our Hevruta. 

Hevruta depends on just the two of you. Each of you has to be an active participant. Because our Hevruta depends on just the two of us, we have developed not only a commitment to studying but a commitment to studying with one another. 

Studying with someone is a special way of getting to know that person. And we’ve become very good friends through being each other’s Hevruta.

The work we’ve done in Hevruta has definitely affected my prayer life. In particular the work we did in “My People’s Prayerbook” has resonated with me long after we’ve discussed it. One example is the Kedusha, in which we proclaim God’s holiness. 

I remember that somewhere in “My People’s Prayerbook” someone mentions that God’s holiness is so far removed from us that we can proclaim it at length only within community. That’s why, when we repeat the Amidah in a minyan, the Kedusha goes on for a full page. However, in the silent Amidah, when we are praying alone, we can only hold on to the idea of God’s holiness for a very little time. Thus, in the silent Amidah, the Kedusha is only a line and a half.  Interestingly, when I looked back in “My People’s Prayerbook” for this insight, I couldn’t find it where I thought it was.   But I’m sure it’s in there somewhere. 

 

Beverly: 

When you study in Hevruta, it’s important to pick the right partner. Make sure it’s someone you are comfortable with.  Studying one-on-one can be intense.  It’s also helpful to study with someone whose point of view or perspective is different than yours.

It helps to keep a regular, and realistic, schedule. Text should be interesting to both of you. Make sure you have materials and commentaries with different points of view.